Judges are, both by nature and design, a very private group of people. Seldom do we gain much insight into them as individuals – how they work, and what they think. However, over the last week three separate stories emerged that gave us a rare glimpse into their separate world, revealing the best and the worst of our judiciary.
I’ll begin with a story about His Honour Judge Stephen Wildblood QC, who sits as a Circuit Judge on the Western Circuit and is the Designated Family Judge for Avon, North Somerset and Gloucestershire. Judge Wildblood will already be well known to many family lawyers as being particularly outspoken and innovative. However, he has now taken the very unusual step for a sitting judge of giving an interview to the media, in this case the internet news and entertainment site BuzzFeed.
The interview covers a range of matters (you can read it here), but the headline to the story was Judge Wildblood’s admission that he has on occasion cried after ordering that children should be removed from their parents. This admission has (to my knowledge) drawn universal praise amongst family lawyers on Twitter, and no doubt elsewhere. I serves, I think, as a useful reminder that judges are human, and that they do care deeply about the cases they deal with (it was particularly enlightening to read that Judge Wildblood often wakes up in the night worrying about cases).
One of the major issues that Judge Wildblood raised in the interview was the abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters back in 2013, and its continuing effects. That issue was also raised by Mr Justice Bodey, in his valedictory address on the occasion of his retirement as a High Court judge assigned to the Family Division. I’ve not seen a transcript of the address, but it is reported that Mr Justice Bodey said that it was “shaming that in this country, with its fine record of justice and fairness” that he should be presiding over cases in which individuals are forced to represent themselves. He, like judge Wildblood, found himself having to help litigants in person by cross-examining witnesses on their behalf.
Again, these comments seem to have drawn universal acclaim from family lawyers and others. It is a national shame that we now have a two-tier family justice system, to which only the wealthy have full access. Mr Justice Bodey’s comments again remind us that judges, despite the fact that they may still primarily be drawn from the ‘upper echelons’ of society, do care about the basic principle of equal access to justice for all. Unlike, it seems, those who hold the purse-strings at Westminster.
My final story, however, looks at a rather less endearing aspect of judicial behaviour, although thankfully only exhibited by a small minority. A senior barrister has raised on Twitter the issue of rude judges who are unnecessarily aggressive and sharp, or who even intimidate and bully advocates appearing before them, with the result that they seriously undermine the professional confidence of those advocates.
It has been said that these comments shatter a longstanding ‘taboo’ against raising such issues. However, once again the comments seem to have been generally met with approval from other advocates.
For my own part I can recall as a young lawyer being treated pretty rudely by some judges. I remember in particular some High Court masters that I hated having to appear before, and who would cut to shreds any advocate to whom they took an exception (woe betide anyone who didn’t have their case properly prepared!). Now, I never was going to be the world’s greatest advocate, but these experiences certainly dented my confidence, and have lived with me to this day.
On the positive side, I’m sure that things are better now than they were thirty years ago (that was my experience, although bully judges usually temper their behaviour with more experienced advocates), and I did usually find that specialist family judges were generally far less likely to be rude towards advocates. However, I think it is important that this issue has been brought into the open. I understand that judges can be under enormous stress, but there is no need for rudeness, which can have a detrimental effect not just upon advocates but also upon their clients. As for how such judges deal with litigants in person, I daren’t think.
Photo by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.